Practical Tortoise Raising and Other Philosophical Essays

Daniel Whiting assesses a philosophical argument that attempts to take us from 'doing' to 'saying'

January 6, 2011

Torture is wrong. It might seem that I've just asserted that torture is wrong and, in doing so, ascribed a property, wrongness, to torture. Moreover, it might seem that I've stated a truth or a fact. Some philosophers worry about the idea of moral - and, more generally, evaluative - properties, truths and facts.

"Expressivists" respond by denying that in saying "Torture is wrong" I asserted or attributed anything; rather, I expressed my feelings about torture.

"Deflationists" respond in turn as follows. Since "Torture is wrong" is a meaningful declarative sentence, then, trivially, in uttering it, I said that torture is wrong. Admitting this is admitting moral truths/facts: saying that torture is wrong is equivalent to saying that it's true/a fact that torture is wrong. In which case, didn't I (truly) attribute wrongness to torture?

Simon Blackburn has devoted much of his career to defending - by refining and reconfiguring -expressivism. In this collection, he carries on the task with his characteristically forthright style and wit.

Having "fully absorbed" deflationism, Blackburn grants that, in using evaluative language, one might express truths, etc. His focus is no longer the "semantics" of evaluative discourse - whether its expressions refer, have truth conditions, etc. In his words, "Semantics tells us only where we have ended up; my explanatory interest is in suggesting why and how we ended up where we did."

To this end, he turns to "approaches to the theory of meaning that fly under the banner of pragmatism", which seek "to understand saying in terms of doing". Pragmatists consider how expressions come to have their distinctive roles, and so meanings, by considering the practices of using them.

In this manner, expressivists attempt a "genealogy or anthropology or even a just-so story about how this mode of talking and thinking (in evaluative terms) came about and the function it serves" while eschewing "any use of the referring expressions of the discourse". The hope is to explain what subjects are doing when saying "Torture is wrong" without using the word "wrong" or otherwise referring to wrongness, appealing only to subjects' sentiments, the observations that elicit them, the actions they result in, and the utility of having terms with which to express them.

Blackburn doesn't attempt here to provide any such explanation in full, only to make room for the project and indicate what shape it must take. Still, one might ask, if expressivists succeed in accounting for evaluative discourse without invoking values, what would that show? That there are no evaluative properties? This conclusion would conflict with Blackburn's deflationism ("properties (are) the semantic shadows of predicates"). Nevertheless, in places he seems pulled in that direction. Given a story about the perceptual inputs, mental states and behavioural outputs underlying the use of a vocabulary, how does one determine its referents? Blackburn advances the "pragmatist" idea that an expression refers to whatever explains successful action involving it. "Milk" refers to milk, not lemonade or coal, since actions, eg, finding milk, based on occurrences of "milk", eg, "Milk is in the fridge", typically succeed due to the presence of milk, not lemonade or coal.

Given this, doesn't Blackburn have to deny that evaluative terms refer to evaluative properties, since it is precisely the expressivist's contention that one can explain the successful functioning of evaluative discourse without appeal to them? Again, this seems in tension with deflationism.

So, to what extent one can reconcile expressivism and deflationism via pragmatism remains an open question. Given the exploratory nature of these essays, this is no surprise. The "journey from doing to saying" is in its early stages. Blackburn is certainly an eloquent and illuminating guide.

Practical Tortoise Raising and Other Philosophical Essays

By Simon Blackburn

Oxford University Press

352pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780199548057

Published 30 September 2010

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